Thoughts on Judaism

Monday, February 21, 2005

Did the Chabad Rebbe die?

Before we delve into this, I would just like to preface by saying that I have no personal stake or "side" in this discussion. I actually enjoy controversial subjects, if you hadn't yet figured that out, and I will entertain (not accept, entertain) any proposition that has logical defense that does descend into sophistic "prove it isn't so" spins.

For those who say the Chabad Rebbe is dead, they have some very compelling evidence. Namely, they have satisfied "habeas corpus". We have a body, a gravesite, no controversy surrounding the whereabouts of the body of the Chabad Rebbe. He has not been seen nor heard from (at least verifiably) since his assumed death in 1994. I didn't even need DNA or forensics for this.

For those who say that the CR lives, there are two categories. There are those who say that the CR lives on spiritually as a Tzadik, as all tzadikim. They would quote kabalah, that a tzadik is more alive after he leaves the world. They would say that a tzadik lives on in his teachings which are his true self, along the lines of the Tanya's explanation of the difference between a tzadik and a benoni. I am at a loss as to what they mean by this. How is the CR different in this than any of the multitude of tzadikim before him? For instance, if Yosef Karo, Moshe Isserles, Ran, Rif etc. are tzadikim, are they dead or alive in this view? How about the other Chabad Rebbes? Are they all alive? If you answer that they all are indeed alive, you have redefined alive in a consistent manner. You have conceded though that there is nothing special about the CR being "alive", except that you are saying that he is a tzadik. The physical evidence presents no problem. Kol HaKavod.

Then, there is the second category. There are those who say that the CR's death is different than other tzadikim, in that it is physical life. The physical evidence is problematic, so they answer with two parallels. During the Golden Calf experience, the people were shown that Moshe had died, in order to entice them to rebel. This is fairly weak, since they didn't have an actual body in that case and Moshe was indeed still alive. The information was deceptive, so the case is not a real parallel. So, they answer that Yaakov did not die. As Rashi brings from Aggada, even though they presented physical evidence that he had been buried and prepared as a corpse (I do not like the translation "embalm", for Chanata), nonetheless, he was only considered to have died. This explains the use of the word "Vayigva" rather than the more direct "vaYamas". In the case of Yaakov though, we have a pasuk that we must learn. Nontheless, we have a direct parallel. There is no telling what this really means, though. Would we say that, if his wife were alive, she could marry? If we can assign an aggada to an actual person, how do we know that it won't apply to others? What marked the CR as having this medrash apply to him, whereas others are distinguished as not having it apply to them? The question is immensely important. How can we ever permit any widow to remarry if undisputed appearance of death, burial and even preparing the corpse are not acceptable as evidence? One might answer that halacha uses assumption rather than proof, but even what the witnesses are expected to return in the case of an agunah is the evidence of appearance of death, based on the assumption that this is enough to assume death. This argument turns that very assumption on its head and invalidates halachas on which rests "misa v'kares". Another obvious problem is that when someone is dead - to all appearances - and one insists that that person is still alive, what exactly are they saying? In more clinical terms, what properties are different between the living and dead? We must determine this before we can assert that the difference does indeed exist. I deeply fear that most of the people who hold this view of the CR have not even thought it through to that extent.

So all in all, the primary question is not whether the CR died, but what do adherents mean when they say that he is still alive?


  • As a complete outsider I have often thought that the logical explanation is this : like other haredim, the Lubavitchers have always accepted the fundamental religious argument against Zionism, which is that the Return of the Jewish People to their Land is supposed only to occur in the Messianic age, and that in fact leading this return successfully is one of the desiderata for identifying the Messiah. Now, Lubavitch found itself ex post facto involved with the Zionist process from the time of Zalman Shazar onwards, to the fury of other haredi groups, and needed to develop an ideological justification for this which would preserve the apparent distinction between their idea of 'zionism' and that of the hated secular leftists. It also seemed to me that the Mafdal solution to the same problem was worthy of note, namely treating the Party itself as a corporate Messianic force (a totally marxistic solution).

    By Blogger Rowan Berkeley, at 2:09 AM  

  • Excellent comments, indeed.

    I do think that the Chabad Rebbe, YY Schneerson, passively supported the Zionist enterprise. His assertion was that the gathering of Jews would be Divinely protected. He had the same problems that others had with the early leftist Zionists, but he felt that the potential to bring the Messiah closer, by bringing Jews together and eventually moving them toward a Torah government was worth the risk. This was before the Chabad native Shazar was a factor.

    I agree that it probably took a while for Chabadniks to actively support the Zionist movement, since it meant taking a lot of heat in the larger Chasidic world, and for reasons that they would have agreed with. The rest of the Chasidic world felt that they must FORCE Jewry in Israel to accept torah law, without wanting to put in the painstaking work of winning them over philosophically. I shudder to think what might have happened if they had gotten their way. But we will be discussing that scary scenario here as well.

    By Blogger Rebeljew, at 10:55 AM  

  • In truth, the previous Lubavitch Rebbe as well as the current Lubavitch Rebbe (whatever state that you think him to be in) were both vehemently against Zionism. In fact they have gone as far as to say that it has pushed off the geulah. What the Rebbe was supportive of, was saving Jewish lives. This was the reason that he was argued that the land of Israel should not be divided, not an inch given away to the Arabs. He never felt, however, that it was the Jewish state that we were looking for. The Rebbe was Anti-Zionist, but Pro-Jewish.

    By Blogger Esther, at 10:10 PM  

  • Hey, great website, I don't know how I didn't come across it sooner. Please do stop by my jewish reference website and let me know what you think.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:21 PM  

  • my father is a chabad rabbi but i am not frum in the slightest.

    as someone who has been amoung chabad for a large part of my life i can say that although there are many who say that the CR is alive quoting the arguments above, there are many who will simply tell u at the slightest argument "THE REBBE IS ALIVE!". these people have no backing, proof, quotes or anything to support this view but hold on to it vehenemously. be it because it is thier way of dealing with the death of the rebbe or whatever, it borders on Christean-esque concepts of somone trancending physical boundries and existing as an all encompassing G-d-like being.
    Borders on avodah-zorah if u ask me.

    by the way, for those who are interested in the CR alive/dead/somthing else controversy, find out about the "Yechi adonenu..." issue that is another one that is argued about within chabad and closly tied to the alive/dead issue.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:17 PM  

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